In 2009, South African athlete Caster Semenya won gold in the women’s 800m at the World Athletics Championships. With barely enough time to bask in her achievement, Semenya was thereafter subjected to a publicly humiliating “gender test” and forced to withdraw from the rest of the competition. Now, a Stanford bioethics panel is contesting this practice, citing it as an unnecessary, poor application of the science of hormones.
Semenya was essentially turned into a spectacle because she is an intersex person, a term that denotes a category of conditions that result in uncommon combinations of physical sex characteristics. In her case, her medal was contested because she does not have ovaries, she has internal testes, and consequently produces a larger amount of testosterone than most women.
In light of her testosterone levels, and the fact that she had won the race, the International Association of Athletics Federations instituted a policy that held that women with unusually high levels of testosterone would be banned from competition unless they lowered their hormone levels via surgery or drugs. This policy was based on the assumption that “androgenic hormones (such as testosterone and dihydrotestosterone) are the primary components of biologic athletic advantage.” The IAAF planned to instate these regulations as early as this year’s London Olympics.
However, a panel of scientists, sports experts, and bioethicists from the Stanford Center for Biomedical Research has recently stepped up to challenge this policy and the entire notion that higher levels of testosterone result in a fundamental physical advantage in sports, releasing a critique of the policy today in the American Journal for Bioethics.